Interview with David Lavallee

The world’s first professor of duty of care in sport discusses the challenges of tackling corruption, seeking inspiration from Maya Angelou, and the perfect Reuben sandwich

December 7, 2017
David Lavallee

David Lavallee joined Abertay University in Dundee as the world’s first professor of duty of care in sport in August 2017. Originally from the US, he studied at Boston College and Harvard University before completing a PhD in sport psychology at the University of Western Australia. Professor Lavallee is an adjunct professor at the University of Limerick and a recent recipient of an Erskine fellowship at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

Where were you born?
Lowell, Massachusetts.

What led you towards studying this area of sport?
I believe that independent, impartial research has a big part to play in creating a sustainable positive impact on people involved in sport, both now and in the future. I am also focused on providing education to inform and influence the next generation of leaders who can help protect and grow trustworthiness in sport. The most important part of sport is the people involved, whether they are taking part, coaching, refereeing, volunteering or [participating] in some other capacity. However, as highlighted in a review published by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in April 2017, questions have been raised about whether the well-being and welfare of people are being put at the centre of what sport does and delivers.

What is it that makes it clear to you that greater care and support is needed in sport?
We are truly in the middle of an era when sport is under attack from a range of internal and external corruptive forces, with the very integrity of sport being undermined by doping, betting addiction and a growing number of welfare issues. Sport around the world therefore needs an antidote in the form of a robust duty-of-care approach to protect its unique position and impact in society.

What changes do you hope to implement through your work?
I hope to contribute to the development of a more responsible sport sector and help duty of care climb the priority stack in sports and in the minds of leaders. I believe that the “medals over morals” and “winning at all costs” approach will lose its aim of inspiring a nation and adversely affect the recruitment and retention of the people in sport.

What needs to be done with regard to bullying, harassment and discrimination?
In addition to supporting victims comprehensively at the point of need, more focus should be on the people who bully, harass and discriminate against others, along with their protectors and enablers. Once the unacceptable behaviour of these people is fully understood, they can be rehabilitated as part of an effective duty-of-care system.

Tell us about something interesting you learned as an undergraduate.
My undergraduate degree was in philosophy, and I always recall the following quote by Epictetus: “It is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which they think they already know.” I always try to keep an open mind in order to consider new ideas.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My wife, Ruth, who is one of the best academics I have ever met and has selflessly taken several career breaks to help raise our three sons.

What saddens you?
The treatment of students (who also happen to be talented at sport) by a growing number of higher education institutions as commodities to be traded through the setting of targets for medals and target numbers of Olympians and Paralympians at the institution.

What advice do you give to your students?
The world is not as it appears. You get ahead by needing less. The worst form of listening is preparing to speak. Never stop continuing to learn because much of what we have learned and know has diminishing value, and is worth less as each day passes. Always return phone calls and reply to emails: it is not only professional courtesy to do so but poor etiquette and decorum to think that not communicating is an acceptable form of communication. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Maintain your integrity at all costs – and never, ever cross the line that invalidates your principles.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what would you do?
I would recommend that universities not be allowed to selectively isolate and manipulate league table rankings. I have lost count of the number of students who have noted how unequivocally hypocritical this practice is, given the proclaimed fostering of graduate attributes regarding critical and analytical thinking, ethics and the appreciation of evidence. Institutions that are ruled by this tyranny of mediocrity should prepare for deep dissatisfaction and kakistocracy.

What have you read recently?
Night, by Elie Wiesel, a book about his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps at the height of the Holocaust. The following part is so impactful: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” I am also reading Mission at Nuremberg, by Tim Townsend, and The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde.

What do you do for fun?
I enjoy playing sports with my family, whether it is basketball in the garden or table tennis in the garage.

What one thing would improve your working week?
An American-style diner that makes a perfect Reuben sandwich, within a brisk walk from my office. I could happily survive on them at lunchtime.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
Maya Angelou’s view that people will forget what you said and people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.


Richard Black has been appointed pro vice-chancellor and head of the College of Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Currently pro-director (research and enterprise) and professor of development studies at Soas, University of London, Professor Black will move to the Midlands in April 2018. An expert on migration and refugee issues, he was founding head of the University of Sussex’s School of Global Studies from 2009 to 2013. His most recent publications have focused on long-term changes in migration, including from Africa to Europe, and within countries in South Asia in response to climate change.

Annette Bramley will be the new director of the N8 Research Partnership, a collaboration of Northern England’s eight leading research universities. Dr Bramley joins N8 – which represents Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York universities – from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Koen Lamberts, York’s vice-chancellor and chair of N8, said that Dr Bramley would “help to continue our valuable and important part in creating a Northern Powerhouse by pioneering collaboration, knowledge exchange and engagement activities that establish innovative communities with business and society”.

Simon Usherwood has been named deputy director of the Brexit studies organisation UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE). The University of Surrey politics lecturer will run a series of public events across the country identifying regional issues and concerns about Brexit and will also study the social media activity of European leaders and foreign ministers to gauge their views on Article 50 negotiations.

Mark Tewdwr-Jones, professor of town planning at Newcastle University, has been appointed the chair of the Regional Studies Association.

Donald Markwell, a former global head of the Rhodes Scholarships scheme, has been named the next head of St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney.


Print headline: HE & me

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